With each passing year following the release of 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds, it started to seem more and more possible that a third Justin Timberlake album might never happen. The intrigue around it wasn’t at Detox levels or even anything resembling the wait for D’Angelo’s follow-up to Voodoo. But having scaled the heights of commercial success with his first two solo efforts, and in the midst of building up his stature in Hollywood, it was hardly a stretch to think Timberlake had finished saying his piece, musically speaking.
So it was completely out of the blue when, earlier this year, JT kicked off what would become a mammoth promo campaign with the release of a new single and details of an accompanying album, The 20/20 Experience. Despite being caught somewhere between Jessica Biel’s thighs and a Hollywood production studio for the past six years, that initial single, “Suit and Tie,” turns out to be just the tip of the iceberg artistically as well. Adopting a retro soul vibe, but with a wink towards being something cooler, “Suit & Tie” tricks itself into thinking it’s slicker than it actually is – it’s the audio equivalent of a soirée caught between black tie and afterparty.
The album cuts rectify the issue in a big way: “That Girl” and the fittingly addictive “Pusher Love Girl” – the other songs that make up the project’s centerpiece big band trilogy – embrace the sound without pretension and end up being terrific showcases for Timberlake’s smooth vocals and the album’s rich musicianship. Elsewhere, The 20/20 Experience ends up less devoted to the throwback feel than expected, fitting somewhere between the sprawl of Justified and the more cohesive and consistent FutureSex/LoveSounds. With production by Timbaland, together with Timberlake and Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon, the album isn’t so much concerned with showing off new tricks; for the longtime collaborators, it’s more an exercise in picking the right spots to employ the multiple tools at their disposal.
“Tunnel Vision” is an explosive number for the dance floor, tricked out with everything from Aaliyah-era percussion and chunky bass to a strings section that cuts right across the heart of the track. “Don’t Hold the Wall” and “Let the Groove Get In” are infused with a splash of international flavor (another Timbaland trademark). And slowjam “Spaceship Coupe” provides one of many opportunities for JT to stretch out his patented falsetto. For what initially seems like self-indulgence, the album’s extended running time – tracks routinely run past the seven-minute mark – allows Timberlake and company to flex their production chops, seamlessly shift tempos, and play around with unconventional song structure (some even thought enough of the extended outros to warrant a separate stand-alone EP).
From a songwriting perspective, The 20/20 Experience is the work of a newlywed, through and through, with Timberlake’s lyrics alternating almost strictly between love- and sex-drunk. There are plenty of goofy lines, with JT offering up uncomfortably thin euphemisms (“Strawberry Bubblegum”), cheesy come-ons (“Suit & Tie”), and eye-roll-inducing bedroom talk (“Hop into my Spaceship Coupe / there’s only room for two, me and you / and with the top up you’re wrapped up / in my space lover cocoon”).
That most of these songs still work – the result of clever melodies, winning hooks, and varied, layered production – can only be a testament to Timberlake’s ability to pull off an accomplished blockbuster, a capacity that has been only marginally dulled by his more than half-decade away from the game. Bring on the sequel.
Label: RCA | Producers: Timbaland, Justin Timberlake, Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon, Rob Knox, The Tennessee Kids